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Spiers on Sport: SPL is refreshing, even without Old Firm

There were quite a few Jeremiahs doing the rounds when the stricken Rangers were lost to the SPL over the summer – and I was among them.

The SPL will be greatly diminished, we said. It will severely lose its gloss. Assertions were quickly made about Scottish football’s top flight sliding towards a Norwegian or Irish model - in terms of quality and prestige - without the fallen Ibrox club.

Many doubts were also expressed about the willingness of TV companies to shell out cash on a Scottish game which, rightly or wrongly, was viewed purely in terms of its Old Firm appeal.

Some of these gloomy forecasts had a degree of truth in them. By definition, denuded of the Rangers throngs, the SPL crowds will be down this season (though of course, that might not be the most significant way of calculating club attendances.)

It simply stands to reason that, on a lot of bottom lines, figures will show a decrease due to the pulling power of Rangers.

Well, all of that is for the bean-counters to worry about. Because in lots of other ways, this season’s SPL has been refreshingly different and appealing.

Most significant of all, with almost a third of the season played, Celtic have yet to break free of the pack and establish a tedious one-horse race.

At the moment Neil Lennon’s team are level on points with Hibs – though with a game in hand - with Aberdeen, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone all giving chase.

Few doubt that Celtic will win the 2012-13 title; even fewer probably think it won’t be by a comfortable margin in the end. But that doesn’t take away from the novelty value of this SPL so far.

Ask Scottish football fans what they think – obviously omitting those who attend Ibrox – and many will say they are greatly enjoying the current campaign.

Bizarrely, it seems to be supporters of Rangers and Celtic who are the most touchy on the subject - which will surprise no-one who has always viewed the Old Firm tribes with a jaundiced eye.

Many Rangers fans are loath to admit they are missing the SPL. Some of them are genuinely enjoying the new adventure of the Third Division. Other Rangers fans, as one commentator put it recently, "through gritted teeth are saying 'no, no, we insist, this is great fun down here…'”

Many Celtic supporters, in truth, can be equally obtuse on the subject. While it stands to reason that they have a greater chance of winning the SPL title – and they might have won it anyway – many fans are still missing their rivalry with Rangers.

To them, the fixture-card at Parkhead is lacking its usual spice. What football fans the world over do not savour their city rivalries? Well, Celtic’s are being denied theirs. The sight of the Old Firm derby four times a season, no matter how often it seemed to come round, would thrill supporters, but it is (temporarily) no more.

It is politically touchy to say it, but many Celtic supporters are missing Rangers.

But the rest? Why, they seem to be enjoying it. Personally, I’ve been to many games this season I would not normally attend – at Easter Road, Rugby Park and McDiarmid Park – and have really enjoyed what I’ve seen.

In fact, this season has slightly reminded me of why I loved football in the first place, before Rangers and Celtic grabbed all my attention.

I am minded that football should be competitive, between two eager teams, where an exciting 90-minute narrative unfolds before your eyes.

The current SPL is not perfect. It may even be financially poorer. But a lot of Scottish football supporters are enjoying what they are witnessing.

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